Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans’ Day

Today is Veterans’ Day, a day of gratitude and remembrance that should not go unremarked. Last year I examined veterans’ novels; no need to add further titles to the list. Although most of them aren’t very good, except for The Great Gatsby—your opinion of it changes forever when you read it as a veteran’s novel—I am increasingly struck by the disappearance of military service from the experience of most educated Americans, including most writers.

The case is different in Israel, where everyone but the haredim serves in the IDF. The result is an unaffected patriotism, and a sense of national unity, that is entirely missing in the elite precincts of American culture. (Watch this video of weightlifter Sergio Britva struggling to control his emotions as Hatikvah is played to mark his victory at the World Masters Weightlifting competition in Poland in September.) The loss of the martial virtues weakens an entire culture. Whole generations begin to rate themselves too special, “with a special kind of hide to be saved,” as Gen. Savage puts it in Twelve O’Clock High, to risk their careers, let alone their lives, for their country. (I’m a good one to talk. Even though my grandfather was a U.S. Marine who came under fire in the Dominican Republic, I dishonored his memory by becoming a draft-card burner—a coward who trembled behind the shrubbery of towering anti-war principle.)

In an essay that I have praised elsewhere, Lisa Schiffren shows how military values have been corrupted in American discourse:

Discipline was reduced to authoritarianism; duty interfered with the higher calling of self-fulfillment; obedience was slavish submission to authority, which should be questioned at every juncture; the quest for glory was mere adventurism. Honor was found to be entirely a charade, unwinnable in any forum that involved defending the morally indefensible principles on which our culture rests.Although Schiffren goes on to lament the cultural invisibility of American war heroes (quick: name the first living soldier from the Iraq or Afghanistan wars to receive the Medal of Honor), I am concerned about the loss of something more ordinary—that is, unexceptional enlisted service, which demands nothing less of a man than determination and responsibility. While the country pauses today to respect genuine heroes like Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, it is important to honor too the ordinary serviceman, who is pretty much all that stands between American culture and an around-the-clock chattiness that tries to hold at bay the blank terror of death.


Dick Stanley said...

My IDF friends are inspiring. If we were under the gun all the time the way Israel is, we might not be such a Dancing With The Stars society.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Veterans' Day remembrance. I am a Vietnam War veteran whose commanding officer, Thomas Kelley, received the Medal of Honor.